The Right Reverend Thomas C. Ely, Bishop of Vermont
January 15, 2016
My context as bishop of Vermont and my relationship with the people of Vermont have significantly shaped my understanding with regard to our marriage canons and marriage liturgies. Having served on the Marriage Task Force and the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music of the Episcopal Church, I have spent considerable time and energy engaged in the work that led to the adoption of the two General Convention resolutions that expand our theological understanding of marriage and provide liturgical expression for full marriage equality in the Episcopal Church. This work has been most rewarding. I believe equality is a gospel value, a justice value, a missional value, and a pastoral value. Securing the right to marriage for all people is a practice consistent with the long-held values of civil equality held by the Episcopal Church.
Understanding the Anglican Communion and the complex realities of relationships, authority and decision making within the life of the Anglican Communion is an important part of the current digestion of the meeting and statement from the Primates who gathered in Canterbury this week. Andrew McGowan, Dean of Berkeley Divinity School and Editor of the Journal of Anglican Studies has written this thoughtful and helpful analysis of the meeting and the Anglican Communion. I commend it to you.
For me, sadness and disappointment are the overwhelming feelings in my heart as I read and ponder the statement from this week’s gathering in Canterbury. I find it especially disappointing to read that the principle offering from a meeting called by the Archbishop of Canterbury in the spirit of reconciliation includes what comes across to me as a rebuke of one member of the Anglican family, the Episcopal Church. It is even more poignant to read this response as we prepare for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity next week – the week between the great Feast Days of the Confession of Saint Peter and the Conversion of Saint Paul. I was hoping for something better, while at the same time fearing something worse.
Despite my disappointment, it is important to note that the Primates, one of the Anglican Communion Instruments of Communion, remain in relationship. There is agreement here to continue in conversation, with reconciliation, not unanimous agreement on all things, as the goal. I hope that this continuing conversation will look closely at the theological, ecclesiological and missiological work the Episcopal Church has done with respect to human sexuality and the sacramental rite of marriage.
This is one more hard place along the church’s journey toward full inclusion, the welcoming of all into the full sacramental fellowship of our common life in Christ. Looking at it this way, the rebuke of those who disagree with the direction the Episcopal Church and other communion partners are taking with respect to matters of human sexuality is an unwelcome, but not unexpected, burden we must endure. I do so in the confidence that we are responding to the Spirit’s urging and the ultimate desire for God’s justice in all things. Time is a matter of perspective and our love and affection for those most impacted by God’s justice and full dignity delayed must be exceptionally strong.
In some ways, this agreement is nothing short of miraculous, given the prior predictions of schism and discord. In part, this lens is informed by the efforts of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, who sought to frame the gathering not as a contest between truth and unity, but as an expression of the fact that truth and unity are “bound together” and that “the binding is love.” I don’t foresee the Episcopal Church changing the course of its commitment to the full inclusion of all in the Body of Christ. Other parts of the Anglican Communion are also moving steadily in this direction. Likewise, it is hard to see how those who disagree most adamantly with this commitment will soon embrace our decisions and direction. And so the prayer I think we are called to pray is for love to find a way.
As a bishop in the Episcopal Church who has worked hard to provide full access to marriage for all, while at the same time doing all I can to maintain good collegial relations with those bishops, and others, who disagree with the recent decisions of our General Convention regarding marriage, I find myself puzzled by the inability or unwillingness of the majority of Primates to find a better way to be in relationship. Then again, I have to acknowledge that for them this may well be the best (or perhaps only) way for now. No matter how this plays out, my pledge is that it will not be at the expense of our work in the service of God’s mission here in Vermont, or in our many global partnerships. For me, the words of the hymn, “No turning back, no turning back,” offer inspiration, hope and resolve.
Today, my heart goes out to those here at home and around the world who will hear this statement as a denial of their full dignity as human beings or as a reproach of the kind of welcoming, inclusive church I am proud to say we have become in this diocese, as in others. Please know that while I am in many ways discouraged by this latest development, I have hope that God is indeed working God’s purpose out. I will continue to embrace that hope and witness to the power of God’s love to heal our hearts, as well as our world.
I am very grateful for the faithful witness of Bishop Michael Curry, Presiding Bishop and Primate of the Episcopal Church. Presiding Bishop Curry is a friend and colleague with whom I have shared 15 years of episcopal ministry. His voice, so honestly and eloquently offered in response to this outcome at his first Primate’s meeting, both speaks to and echoes my heart. And so I close with, and commend to you, his words, quoted in yesterday’s Episcopal News Service report from Canterbury:
“Many of us have committed ourselves and our church to being ‘a house of prayer for all people,’ as the Bible says, when all are truly welcome. Our commitment to be an inclusive church is not based on a social theory or capitulation to the ways of the culture, but on our belief that the outstretched arms of Jesus on the cross are a sign of the very love of God reaching out to us all. While I understand that many disagree with us, our decision regarding marriage is based on the belief that the words of the Apostle Paul to the Galatians are true for the church today: All who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, for all are one in Christ.
For so many who are committed to following Jesus in the way of love and being a church that lives that love, this decision will bring real pain. For fellow disciples of Jesus in our church who are gay or lesbian, this will bring more pain. For many who have felt and been rejected by the church because of who they are, for many who have felt and been rejected by families and communities, our church opening itself in love was a sign of hope. And this will add pain on top of pain.
I stand before you as your brother. I stand before you as a descendant of African slaves, stolen from their native land, enslaved in a bitter bondage, and then even after emancipation, segregated and excluded in church and society. And this conjures that up again, and brings pain. The pain for many will be real. But God is greater than anything. I love Jesus and I love the church. I am a Christian in the Anglican way. And like you, as we have said in this meeting, I am committed to ‘walking together’ with you as fellow primates in the Anglican family.”
Faithfully yours in Christ,